Christopher Priest: Inverted World
Introduction by Adam Roberts
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010 (1974)
This is a beguiling read. We’re presented with so much in the way of supportive material, detailed ‘facts’ about what is happening, about what we’re supposed to be witnessing, and yet we are left doubting everything. Like the notional protagonist of the tale we are left — literally and figuratively — all at sea; and though it’s indicated at the end that the protagonist intends to return to shore, the reader is still left floundering.
The opening seems to suggest we’re on solid ground. Helward Mann lives in a city called Earth. It’s towed forward on rails towards and beyond what is declared an optimum point but cannot ever keep still; only apprentices in the various guilds that keep the city mobile are ever put in a position to understand why it’s imperative that the city moves and then they dare not ever contemplate any alternative. Much of the novel is told from Helward’s point of view, meaning that we are bound to accept his perception of what the truth of the matter is; but little by little, when our attention is shifted from Mann’s autobiography to a third-person narrative and to a outsider’s perspective, we realise that all is not as it seems.
I shall follow convention and not reveal the ‘twist’ that occurs towards the end, though to be honest it didn’t take much to fathom what the ‘reality’ of this future world was well before the final sections.
The central concept of a city moving forward on four sets of tracks is so arresting that it carried this reader through most of the book till it was stopped, quite literally in its tracks, by a barrier no land-based transport can cross: the sea. Other writers have taken this, or a similar concept of a community on rails, and run with it, notably Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines (2001) and China Miéville’s Railsea (2012) and Iron Council (2004), but here the solid ground I mentioned earlier is not as reliable as we at first thought: it’s moving, and the city has to move inexorably forward or be doomed to extinction.
This novel at first appears to be in the so-called hard SF genre. There’s discussion of hyperbolas, of infinite worlds bound within a finite universe and a mysterious energy that distorts time and space. To the distress of true scientific geeks none of it stacks up, however much it appears acceptably convincing to the innocent reader in terms of pushing the narrative on.
What Inverted World really boils down to, however, is perception: not just physical perception — through our eyes, our sense of touch and so on — but what our minds have been conditioned to believe is reality. This is Helward Mann’s problem: the mental paradigm he has inherited and accepted through personal experience is challenged by outsiders who function according to different paradigms. Interestingly, Helward’s challenges come from two strong independently-minded women who upset the status quo of this male-dominated urban society in ways that fundamentally question the parameters under which it has existed for two centuries.
I see this as a philosophical novel, one which looks askance at our beliefs in progress (towards what? an illusion?), our devastation of the earth (this was a novel written in the shadow of the Cold War) and blind acceptance of self-perpetuating political systems. Its successful attempts to disorientate us are underpinned by shifts in points of view and authorial voice and by its matter-of-fact prose stripped of any poetry or passion.
Whatever its failings — and there are a few, such as a cast of characters with rather cold personalities whom it’s hard to empathise with — it’s still a haunting read; and maybe those ‘failings’ are deliberate, attempts at opacity and distancing to serve as a warning of the kind of bleak future mankind is heading towards. Towards Hell, perhaps.
In the Ultimate Reading Challenge this counts as a book by an author I’ve never read before